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Perspectives on Contemporary Poetry


Nowadays, with the daily, dizzying proliferation of personal poetry websites, the unfettered promotion of every piece of writing by scribbler and sage, and the absence of authoritative and discriminating critical voices speaking in a public rather than self-serving academic idiom to steer us clear of mediocrity and guide us toward higher peaks, the all important general reader is increasingly left to scavenge on his own in an alien landscape. This phenomenon, however, did not happen overnight.

Twelve years earlier, Dana Gioia, poet and critic, set off a flurry of controversy when he asserted in his essay, "Can Poetry Matter?" that American poetry had detached from the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, and its public audience, and had been appropriated by a subculture--a professional class, based primarily in universities, whose raison d'être is pretty much the production and reception of poetry. The fallout of this worrisome shift was the lack of meaningful, authoritative criticism of poetry in a vernacular that invites rather than alienates the general reader--to the detriment of poetry. It is a point Gioia repeats in his recent article, "Disappearing ink: poetry at the end of print culture." Gioia states that the few reviews of poetry that are written in a public idiom "are increasingly characterized by their blandly uncritical quality." He goes on to say, "most reviewers avoid negative or skeptical assessments." And so, the reader is left to flounder on her own. In Where the Words Come From, a collection of conversations between poets, a similar criticism is made by the poet, Eric Ormsby. Writing good criticism, he says, "is important because the standards by which works of art are judged today are appallingly low. Good poetry can't flourish where bad standards prevail." He further elaborates, "Yet most reviews in North America are too easy: they tend to praise when they should criticize ... unthinking praise is not only meaningless, it is harmful." In the same book, the well known Canadian poet, P. K. Page, in discussing the public appeal of poetry in today's world, says, "poetry, on the whole, as an artistic practice, it seems to me, is ever more obscure in the wider culture." So, one is left wondering whether the vigorous propagation of poetry by electronic and other means is a sign of health or contagion.

But there is another growing phenomenon eating into the belly of poetry that should raise equal concern; namely, the rabid growth of verse for the masses, taking the shape of rap, cowboy poetry, poetry slams and performance poetry. In his essay, "Disappearing ink: poetry at the end of print culture," published this year in The Hudson Review, Gioia applauds what he regards as a healthy rejuvenation of poetry. David Lehman in The Best of American Poetry: 2001 shares Gioia's enthusiasm for the increasing popularization of poetry, and regards fairs, festivals, TV exposure, and other exhibitionist venues as healthy for the art. As a teacher of poetry workshops, he, perhaps not surprisingly, also regards creative writing programs as salutary in the advancement of poetry (which, to be fair, Gioia would probably take issue with). I am unable to share their exuberance with these populist trends. They are symptomatic of a further social slide toward the unabashed celebration of mediocrity.

Let me make myself perfectly clear. I do not dismiss wholesale this new poetry, with its aural rather than visual emphasis, its adaptation to performance, but feel compelled to cry out a warning: when art becomes servant to the machinery of mass consumption, art destroys itself. I have the uneasy feeling that this zeal for aural stimulation and poetic showmanship reflects not a rekindling of a love for poetry, or a reconnection with oral tradition, but the craving for quick consumption, the quest for easy entertainment, and most disturbing--marks an eroding literacy in our well-oiled, unhinged society. In short, McPoetry on the go.

Undoubtedly, some enthusiasts of the new poetry will consider me reactionary, or at least badly out of touch with this modern world in which fame is measured in units sold and dollars in the bank. But if my opinion still fails to sway, then consider the views of these other poets, who voice even stronger reactions of suspicion, lament and outright disdain about this trend toward performance and display. Elsewhere, I have reviewed the book, Where the Words Come From, a collection of conversations between poets. In it, Sharon Thesen comments that "a lot of poetry readings nowadays may as well be fart-lighting contests." Nor is the well-known Canadian poet, P. K. Page, any more enamoured by this new entertainment:

People turn out in droves to hear poetry readings. I don't think half the audience is remotely interested in poetry; I think it's a sense of getting something for nothing, or a manifestation of the aimlessness that seems to have overtaken our culture, or the hope of titillation. You only have to say the word "fuck" and you bring the house down!

She goes further:

And there are open mics where people get up and read stuff that should never have been written in the first place. Or if written, written as therapy. Rather than developing an ear for poetry, this practice diminishes, reduces it.

In the midst of this metamorphosis of poetry, one can only wonder where we will be ten or twenty years from now. Perhaps the new poetry for stage and fast consumption will be all that survives. I certainly hope not.

Some Readings

For the poet and student of poetry wishing to put contemporary poetry in a historic context and attain some broad understanding of major movements in poetry from Romanticism to the present, and the various groupings of contemporary poetry, the following articles are recommended reading. Let me stress that these essays are only likely to be of interest to those whose curiosity and need extend beyond the immediate pleasure of reading verse.

Albert Gelpi's article, "The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry," explores Modernism's counter-ideology to Romanticism, and the development of Postmodernism out of and in reaction to Modernism. Romanticism in literature evolved out of an increasing interest in Nature, an association of human moods with events in Nature, a growing emphasis on natural religion, and an increasing focus on personal, individual expression and the power of the imagination. The important Romantic poets include Coleridge, Wordsworth, Whitman, Keats, Shelley and Byron. Modernism reacted against much of what Romanticism had embraced, rejected the continuity of subject and object, and cast aside traditional conventions in poetic form. Modernism was at its most active in the early part of the twentieth century. Important poets of the Modernist movement include Eliot, Pound, Williams and Stevens. Gelpi identifies the defining features of Postmodernism set out by the poetry of the Cold War:

... a deepening sense of the mind's alienation from nature and of the world's alienation from reality; an intensified experience of material randomness and temporal flux, of moral relativity and psychological alienation, of epistemological confusion and metaphysical doubt; a drastic scaling down of expectations and aspirations; a questioning of language as a medium of perception and communication; a shift from hypostasizing poetry as a completed work to investigating it as an inconclusive process of provisional improvisation."

Joseph Conte, Editor, in his "Introduction" to the Dictionary of Literary biography: American Poets Since World War II (Sixth Series), outlines Postmodernist developments in poetry since 1945. Notable among the post-war generation of poets are Ashbery, Creeley, Ginsberg, Plath, Sexton, O'Hara and Wright. Conte points out that the distinguishing features of post-war poetry are the shift from an impersonal to a personal orientation, and the disclosure of the self in the poem. Conte identifies four groupings of contemporary poetry, these being the traditionalists (which encompass the New Formalists), the Experimentalists (which include the Language poets), the "identity politics" group, and the personal or postsconfessional lyric group, which is the most prevalent contemporary type of poetic form. Conte notes that the Meditative type of poem has been growing in importance and contrasts this genre with the personal lyric, with the emphasis of the former on the cognitive rather than the sensual, the abstract rather than the particular. Conte considers Ashbery and Ammons as major exponents of the meditative poetic genre.

I think one needs to keep in mind that the various traditions, groups, schools, or genres of poetry are not sharply defined, and some poets may be regarded as not fitting well into any class. Robert Hass, guest editor of The Best American Poetry: 2001, through the process of culling poetry magazines and other literary sources to prepare a list of poems for possible inclusion in the anthology, concluded that contemporary American poetry fell into three broad traditions or groupings: a metrical group, classical in impulse (in which the Neoformalists would fall); "a strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one;" and an experimental tradition (which would include the language poets) "that is usually more passionate about form than content." How the pie is divided and who gets what pie are largely academic exercises.

Ira Sadoff, in her article, "Neo-formalism: a dangerous nostalgia," articulates her concerns about the erosive impact of this popular esthetic movement on poetry, which flourishes in a social environment that cultivates art as a commodity. Neoformalists place a premium on meter and rhyme in their work, with content squeezed down into this Procrustean bed. Sadoff criticizes, and rightly I think, this "one size fits all" approach to verse. In the linkage of pseudo-populism to regular meter and sound, the advocates of New Formalism disguise a social agenda of delivering moral certainty, hoping to bring back a time when "poets were priests instead of professors." The stage becomes the platform for their authority. Sadoff correctly argues that the Neoformalists' esthetic trivializes form, with meter and musicality masquerading as vision.

And finally, Dick Allen, in his article, "Overcoming the tic of techniques: the emergence of Expansive poetry," provides an overview of Expansive poetry, which he defines as "a narrative, dramatic and sometimes lyric poetry," that, in opposition to Confessional poetry, directs away from the self and toward the outside world. Expansive poetry emphasizes "narrative and dramatic elements, and a renewal of variations of traditional forms. Neoformalism and New Narrative are sub-genres of Expansive poetry. Allen is sympathetic to this genre of poetry, but Sadoff's criticisms apply.


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